American Reality TV Is Humiliation TV

Hello, all! A few days ago, I started watching the British cooking competition The Great British Bake-Off. To say it was the greatest moment of my life is an understatement. The show got me thinking about the differences between GBBO and American cooking competitions, or American reality TV in general. It all comes down to the element of humiliation; the Brits appreciate it, but Americans adore it. Hell, we expect it.

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Reality TV devotees can think of at least one moment in a reality show where a contestant was humiliated beyond all reason. I can think of a few off the top of my head. The infamous America’s Next Top Model incident where Tyra screamed at contestant Tiffany for her “defeatist attitude” after being booted off the show:

 

Joe Bastianich destroys Howard’s soul over imperfect pasta:

Not to mention all of the times that Joe threw a contestant’s food (and the GOD DAMN PLATE) into the trashcan:

These interactions are the norm with reality television. Even the judges on my favorite American cooking competition, Chopped, have insulted chefs, though they almost never stoop to that level.

It comes down to the dynamic between the competition’s contestants and the judges. Judges are usually, but not always, “experts” in their field, and they’re all celebrities of one sort or another. American reality TV has created a dynamic in which judges are like feudal lords and contestants are their serfs. Any insubordination, now matter how trivial, is worthy of punishment, usually in the form of humiliation.

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The infraction usually goes something like this: the judge makes a critique, the contestant audibly or visibly disagrees, and the judge takes this as a breach of the feudal contract. They punish the contestant by humiliating them in front of all the other peasants, therefore ensuring that no peasant will ever disagree with the lord again.

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This is an odd phenomenon. When contestants sign up for a television competition, they’re agreeing to manipulative editing, wacko rules, and fake drama. But are they agreeing to soul-crushing debasement? You’d think not.

Which brings me back to The Great British Bake-Off. Not only is this show the epitome of class, but it’s also a competition based on sheer talent. I was shocked.

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The judges, Mary Berry (what a name) and Paul Hollywood (what an even better name) are true professionals. Mary Berry is a renowned British baker with over 70 cookbooks, Paul Hollywood worked as head baker for numerous top hotels in Europe and had the 2005 Top Bread and Pasty cookbook in Britain. Mary Berry has the honor of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), which means that she actually has the credentials to call people filthy peasants. But she doesn’t because she’s

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Paul and Mary are so well-liked and respected that the British newspaper The Guardian called them “the greatest judging duo in the history of reality television.” They’re damn right! It’s because their criticism, while sometimes harsh, focuses only on the technical failure of a contestant’s dish. Mary might give a withering look at a contestant’s choice of flour, or Paul might despair over the shape of a contestant’s ciabatta, but they don’t resort to ad hominem attacks to get their point across. I can’t even imagine them raising their voice at a contestant.

Take a look at Paul and Mary judging biscuits:

 

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It’s like staring into the sun!

The judges are incredibly gracious with their critiques and the contestants lap it all up. Even when a contestant makes a horrible mistake like adding too much sugar, the judges recognize that she made a human error and move on with their criticism. They don’t belittle or mock. They teach.

Now, let’s look at a judging panel on Masterchef:

Let’s be real here. There was no reason for Gordon to call up a chef he wasn’t judging to taste another chef’s food. He was baiting Christian because he knew that he would be arrogant. That’s not what a teacher is supposed to do. Masterchef is a competition for amateur chefs. It’s as much a learning experience as it is a competition and when a judge uses humiliation as a teaching technique, it demonstrates to the other contestants that imperfection is a punishable offense, thus making them even more likely to make a mistake.

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The humiliation culture seems to be a uniquely American characteristic. Shows like American Idol built an industry off of humiliating contestants during the audition rounds. And some competitions never move past the humiliation stage. Shows like Worst Cooks in America and Cutthroat Kitchen seem designed purely to embarrass contestants.

Even if we do a side-by-side comparison, America comes out as the country most focused on humiliation. For example, both Masterchef UK and Masterchef Australia are more focused on performance than the American Masterchef. They also have kinder judges and feature less drama and humiliation.

I find the disparity fascinating. The British are always portrayed as classist snobs, but it seems that at least in American television, we’ve got them beat. I know that humiliation makes good television, but I don’t understand why we can’t have competitions with integrity and save humiliation for shows like The Bachelor and Bad Girls Club. Because if debasement is what it’s all about, the contestants should know exactly what they’re signing up for.

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Or get the hell out of there!

P.S

I have never experienced such rage as when I discovered that the next season of So You Think You Can Dance would now only be for dancers aged 8-13. It actually broke my heart. SYTYCD, I’ve watched you since the beginning. I stayed with you through All-Stars, through the end of ballroom, through the never-ending Travis Wall residency, and through the disastrous Stage vs. Street competition. But enough is enough. If I wanted to watch tiny children dance badly, I’d watch Dance Moms.

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Emotions out.

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